Mario Lanza was the temperamental tenor whose turbulent career followed the highs and lows of his great natural voice.
Lanza's boyhood idol had been Enrico Caruso so it was only fitting that he won his greatest acclaim in the movie role of the renowned tenor in "The Great Caruso."
Some admirers — but not all critics — said his voice compared favorably with Caruso's. The consensus seemed to be that he was naturally gifted and the potential was there if it had been properly trained and developed.
Lanza himself shared this view. He once told columnist Hedda Hopper, "I am the humble keeper of a great voice, the fortunate and unfortunate guy it passes through."
Lanza's troubles with Hollywood began when he refused to start filming MGM's "The Student Prince" in 1952. The studio retaliated by canceling his contract and filing a $5-million suit against him. Lanza had already recorded the songs, and his voice was heard in the picture after he walked out and left the role to Edward Purdom.
The next furor came in 1954 when he made his network television debut and it was revealed he merely mouthed the words to 2-year-old recordings.
Indignant to insinuations that he had lost his voice, Lanza called a news conference to prove that he could still sing.
Skeptics were not too surprised, though, when he failed to appear the following year for a $100,000, two-week engagement opening the New Frontier hotel and casino in Las Vegas. He was reported to be suffering from laryngitis.
Meanwhile he was besieged by lawsuits for damage to two mansions he had rented in Los Angeles, by another brought by his original voice teacher, still another that he brought against his former business manager for misappropriation of funds and finally a United States tax lien.
Lanza, whose earlier movies had included "That Midnight Kiss," "Toast of New Orleans" and "Because You're Mine," returned to films with "Serenade" for Warner Bros. Then he settled his tax troubles and headed for Europe.
Born in Philadelphia, Lanza was reared in the tough section of Little Italy and got into his share of troubles as a youngster. He was a star football and baseball player and a weight lifting champion.
Caruso's music blared from the family flat and from the neighborhood record store. Lanza was about 19 when he burst into a duet with Caruso and his father packed him off to a music teacher, Irene Williams.
After two years of study, he auditioned for William Huff, head of a concert agency. Huff was impressed, but a week later Lanza's grandfather convinced his parents that the young man should go to work for his trucking company.
His big break came when he was delivering a piano to the Academy of Music where the Boston Symphony was auditioning. Huff spotted him and asked him to sing for conductor Serge Koussevitsky.
Lanza went on scholarship to the Berkshire School of Music and made his debut in 1942 at the Tanglewood Music Festival. He got good reviews but advice to acquire training, experience and poise.
Instead, he was drafted. During the war he played in some Army shows and was heard in Hollywood. RCA Victor signed him to a recording contract.
When he was discharged in 1945, Lanza landed a radio job as a summer replacement for Jan Peerce. He studied under Enrico Rosati, appeared in a number of small-town concerts and finally at the Hollywood Bowl in 1947.
Lanza made his only attempt at opera in 1948, appearing in "Madame Butterfly" in New Orleans. But by then he had signed a long-term movie contract and the die was cast.